CABARET LIFE NYC: Even At a Brooklyn Church, Julie Reyburn's Award-Winning FATE IS KIND Is Enchanting Cabaret as Musical Bedtime Story
Cabaret Reviews and Commentary by Stephen Hanks
Sometimes you can stumble into stirring, soul-enriching cabaret in the unlikeliest places. Like at an Episcopal Church in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, for example.
Living in Park Slope, my wife Bea and I are always up for finding cool cultural things to do in Kings County. If there's music involved, all the better. So when I heard that one of New York cabaret's most accomplished female singers Julie Reyburn, and her exquisite Musical Director/Pianist Mark Janas (producer of the award-winning SALON, the open-mic held on Sunday nights at Manhattan's Etcetera, Etcetera Restaurant), would be performing the night before Bea's birthday--on March 1 at Christ Church (Ridge Boulevard between 73rd and 74th Streets)--it seemed like the veritable "no-brainer," especially since Bay Ridge is very underrated when it comes to fine dining. Bea was, as they say, "all in" on the Brooklyn birthday plan.
But this wasn't going to be just any ordinary little fund-raising show in the social hall of a local parish where 60 to 70 folks in the audience make it feel like a packed house. It would be the premier presentation of Christ Church's new monthly series, "Music on the Ridge," to be held every first Saturday at 7:30. It's actually not much of a surprise this otherwise innocuous house of worship would host pseudo-cabaret shows. Not only is Janas the Church's "Minister of Music," but the Priest-in-Charge is Father Jeffrey L. Hamblin, a music lover who spreads the gospel of cabaret with his personal financial support for the SALON, the non-profit Concerts for City Greens in Manhattan's Tudor City, and for critically-praised singing groups like Marquee Five (of which Reyburn is a member).
Reyburn wouldn't be performing some random mix of song standards or highlights of her previous shows over her 14 years on a New York cabaret stage. She would be resurrecting Fate Is Kind, her 2000 debut cabaret show, which earned her MAC and Bistro awards for "Best Female Debut." I was pretty jazzed about seeing the show that first put Reyburn on the cabaret map. As I've been involved in the scene for just less than four years now, this would feel a bit like cabaret time traveling; an adventure that would provide some perspective on how this particular singer achieved her well-respected status in the art form. (It would be a real treat, at least for this reviewer, if more veteran cabaret singers brought their early Award-winning shows out of moth balls so some of us late comers could catch up.) That Reyburn would be doing this show again from the perspective of being a married mother of two (Layla, 8, and Jude, 2--What? You were expecting their names would be Jack and Jill?), would just make it all the more fascinating.
"When I first put this show together," Julie would tell me days after her performance at the Church, "I was on a very introspective journey of looking at my life, questioning my path and how I got there; basically trying to make sense of it all. This show was a way of exploring all that and asking, 'What is real?' Fast-forward to the present, and marriage and parenthood have a way of pulling you into 'real' whether you are ready or not. It's humbling, at times hilarious, and often scary. Singing this show now is a different experience because my husband [Thor Fields] and children have become my greatest teachers on how to be real."
Reyburn is not only "real" off and on a cabaret stage, she's also a total cabaret pro and I found it delightfully ironic that her first show in 2000 was cabaret as musical bedtime story. In late 2011, when she was very pregnant with her son Jude, she appeared in a revue featuring tunes from the Dennis Livingston songbook and acted the role of mom for a song called "The Other Side of the Moon," a long and intricate lyric about cats who climb up a spider's web to have a picnic in space. In my review of the show, I wrote: "Believe me, you can do a lot worse than having Julie Reyburn sing you a bedtime story which includes a bossa nova-style chorus." Then at the Urban Stages 2012 "Winter Rhythms" Festival, Reyburn presented her 2011 show Winter Songs (another I hadn't seen in its initial run at Feinstein's), during which she sang a number of poignant songs from a parent's point of view, including a lullaby-like version of the Beatles' classic "Hey Jude." I ended that review with, "You're one lucky kid if you have a mom like Julie Reyburn singing you to sleep."
It's obvious that on this type of song, the attractive redhead's rich mezzo-soprano, warm stage presence, and flair for intoxicating storytelling has the power to turn me (and I'm guessing many other listeners) into an enrapt toddler rocking on Mama's lap. With Fate is Kind at Christ Church, I got to experience such a feeling for an entire show. And based on the occasional tear that I'd spy streaming down Bea's cheek to her smiling lips on many of Julie's songs, the birthday girl felt much the same. The show's title, Fate Is Kind, may sound like it's telegraphing one of those eclectic cabaret sets built on existential self-examination, but it's actually a line in "When You Wish Upon A Star" from Pinocchio. The wonderfully savvy and creative combination of songs and stories Reyburn features in this show (including a reading of Kahlil Gibran's prose poem "On Children" from The Prophet, and sections of Margery Williams' children's book classic, The Velveteen Rabbit), not only forces you to flip the pages of your mental scrapbook all the way to early childhood, it also tugs on your heartstrings if you're a parent, especially if your child has recently left the nest or is about to (like mine). (Please click on Page 2 below to continue.)
From the moment Reyburn begins the show with a sensual reading of Margaret Wise Brown's classic children's book, Goodnight Moon, which blends into a lovely, lilting rendition of Annie Dinerman's "Child In Me Again," you realize that this show will be about wishing and longing and dreaming, and about never losing the child within no matter what the calendar says about your chronological age. Supported by Mark Janas' (left in photo) sensitive and intricate-yet-accessible arrangements, and rich, orchestral piano, Reyburn gets comfortably into character on evocative musical theater pieces like Stephen Sondheim's "On the Steps of the Palace," Cinderella's song from Into the Woods, Sondheim's "Not While I'm Around" from Sweeney Todd (the show's encore), and Jason Robert Brown's "I'm Not Afraid of Anything," from the revue Songs For a New World. And not since Danny Kaye's version in the film Hans Christian Anderson have I heard a more engaging rendition of Frank Loesser's "The Ugly Duckling." Reyburn also segued from a mesmerizing take on Jimmy Webb's "The Moon's a Harsh Mistress" into enchanting Sesame Street mode on "I Don't Want to Live On the Moon." Late in the show, she introduced a lovely new ballad, "Sea Glass," by singer/songwriter Steve Schalchlin (who is also a Composer-In-Residence at Christ Church), about how shards of glass found on a beach can be transformed into magical works of art.
Which is actually an apt metaphor for Fate Is Kind, a show in which Reyburn and Janas have taken fanciful notions of childhood and beautiful pieces of music and crafted them into a magical work of cabaret art. When for the finale Reyburn reads a climatic section of The Velveteen Rabbit as a lead into "When You Wish Upon a Star," it's as if she has taken the entire audience to her bosom and become a singing Earth Mother. She's no longer the searching, questioning young adult of 14 years ago who's trying to figure out what's real, where she came from, and what it all means. She's the loving, nurturing, spiritual soul who is divinely maternal, offering words both wise and life affirming for children of any age:
Fate is kind
She brings to those who love
The sweet fulfillment of
Their secret longing
Like a bolt out of the blue
Fate steps in and sees you through
When you wish upon a star
Your dreams come true
Julie, if you're singing that to me, especially as I'm drifting off to sleep, I believe you.